Tag Archives: Song

In Birds as in Humans?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

David Rothenberg concludes Why Birds Sing with an answer to the question implied in the book’s title: “For the same reason we sing—because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sounds.” This notion is reminiscent of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s application of funktionslust—“pleasure taken in doing what one does best”—to impressive animal displays. In both cases, the pleasure is not merely frivolous or “for itself,” but an evolutionary adaptation that increases the likelihood of survival. As with theories of musical development in early humans—from Darwin’s sexually selected mating songs to Joseph Jordania’s “battle trance,” in which repetitious beats prepared our prehistoric ancestors for the hunt—there appears to be a mechanistic basis for sonic aesthetics.

One of the refreshing aspects of Rothenberg’s work on bird song (as well as whale song and bug rhythm) is his apparent embrace of the pejorative “anthropomorphizer.” A musician and philosopher, he compares structural and functional aspects of human and avian songs, and freely speculates about links between them. He is no stranger to criticism from the scientific community: “Scientists who say they are investigating what actually occurs in nature caution that musicians and poets tend to hear what they want to hear, to extract some human meaning out of the world’s alien inscrutability. Musicians remain enthralled by what seems unassailably beautiful about the sounds of birds, whether akin to noise music or dulcet melodies.”

Is there common ground between the two camps? Can we, as primatologist Frans de Waal advocates, avoid “gratuitous anthropomorphism” without conducting “linguistic castrations”? More to the point, can bird song reveal anything about our own songs?

Research on bird mimics offers intriguing possibilities. A brief report by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology summarizes several explanations for this behavior. In northern mockingbirds, which can learn upwards of 200 songs, mimicry is likely a sign of fitness. Females seem to prefer males who sing more songs, and adding tunes to the repertoire—from other birds and environmental sounds—can give a mating advantage. Similarly, male marsh warblers pick up songs from wintering grounds in Africa and bring them back to Europe—presumably to impress potential mates. Human virtuosi and sophisticates have similar allure.

Other birds use mimicry to fit in. Indigobirds, for example, are brood parasites that lay eggs in the nests of other species. Chicks learn the begging calls of the host to blend in and get fed. The female thick-billed euphonia uses alarm calls of other species to solicit help in defending her nest from predators. Assimilating songs of the “in-crowd” and using sounds of the “other” to gain their sympathy—these, too, have human analogues.

Occasionally, bird mimicry can also go awry. There are numerous cases of birds learning the wrong songs, such as a vesper sparrow singing songs of the Bewick’s wren and a common yellowthroat singing a chestnut-sided warbler song. These hapless mimics often go unpaired. For humans, engrossment in “uncool” music has a comparable effect.

Hard-nosed scientists caution against drawing parallels between humans and animals—especially distant relatives like birds. Without doubt, there are significant limits to such comparisons. At the same time, the distance provides room for reflection. The immediacy and ubiquity of music in human life—not to mention its labeling as “entertainment”—can obstruct our awareness of its functional basis. The scientific approach to bird song encourages us to ponder like traits in our own music cultures.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Anthropophony

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause identifies two categories of organism-derived sounds: biophony, sounds created by non-human animals, and anthropophony, sounds produced by human beings. Some of these sounds are “musical” in the inclusive sense of displaying structured and intentional patterns that unfold over time. Precisely which sounds fit under this broad definition is debatable. However, on a basic level, we are intuitively attentive to musical sounds around us, both creaturely and human-made. What is perhaps less obvious—and more fundamental—is the extent to which our sense of music is physiologically derived.

This anthropogenic (human-born) appreciation centers on two essential musical elements: rhythm and melody. Both originate with inborn “instruments.” Heartbeats and breathing lay the foundations of rhythm. The voice sets the template for melody. As individuals mature and cultures progress, these internal mechanisms are translated into external instruments, which are themselves imitations and expansions of the organ-instruments within.

Rhythmic awareness begins in the womb. The underlying neural structures of hearing develop early in utero. By the end of the third trimester, a fetus can distinguish a wide range of frequencies. This includes her own heart rate, which beats 120 to 160 times per minute, and her mother’s, which beats 60 to 80 times per minute. When the infant is born, the tempo of breathing is added to the mix. As the child develops, rhythmic exposure and experimentation are diversified: rocking, clapping, banging, shaking, walking, stomping, dancing. It is no coincidence that excited music is fast-paced, mimicking quick breaths and heartbeats, while relaxed music is slow-paced, mimicking calm breaths and heartbeats. Techno, dirges, marches, meditations, and all manner of musical styles play off these natural rhythms.

Similarly with melody. The mother’s voice, which also resonates in the womb, is our first introduction to melodic patterns. Newborns show a preference for music (organized sound) over noise (confused sound), and for vocal music over instruments. Mothers instinctively communicate through “motherese”—high-pitched, sliding, infant-directed intonations—which, through exaggeration, reinforces characteristics of the native language. The infant, in turn, babbles in language-patterned speech-song long before she can form words. These verbal and verbal-imitative vocables set the framework of melody, both sung and instrumental. In every culture, melody is deeply rooted in the phrasing, inflections, and articulations of the spoken vernacular.

We cannot escape the physiological/anthropogenic basis of music perception and production. Rhythmic and melodic sense are born with us. Our heart, breath, and voice invariably inform which sounds—human and non-human—we hear as music, and which ones we do not.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman (Book Review)

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman, by Mary G. Hurd, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 157 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman is fundamentally a book about song lyrics. This “minus the music” approach can be problematic, as a song’s sonic features—particularly timbre in the case of recording artists—tend to have equal or greater impact than the words themselves. Anthologies like Hal Leonard’s The Lyric Book reveal a general truth about songwriting: when words intended for singing are stripped of their music, their appeal is greatly diminished. Without the distraction of catchy melodies or infectious beats, stanzas can become flimsy, rhymes can become forced, and sentiments can become insincere.

Kris Kristofferson would seem likely to suffer from this approach. With such a recognizable voice—described variously as “raspy,” “jagged” and “froggy”—and a knack for exuding authenticity through it, his words risk being tarnished in the absence of sound. However, as Mary G. Hurd explains, Kristofferson is more poet than entertainer, more troubadour than singer-songwriter. Unlike many who pen lyrics for melody, his verses have legitimate literary interest; and nearly five hundred artists have recorded his songs, making his own voice less central than it otherwise might be. This is remarkable considering Hurd’s point that “each song reflects how [Kristofferson] felt at the time it was written, all his songs tell the story of him, psychologically and emotionally, and record his changes brought on by experience and the passage of time” (p. xvi).

The book begins with a biographical sketch. Because Hurd’s primary focus is lyrics, she offers only select glimpses into the complicated factors that shape Kristofferson’s songwriting. Of note is his upbringing in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where the ugliness of anti-Mexican sentiment taught him to sympathize with the downtrodden—a theme most strongly heard in his much-criticized album Third World Warrior (1990), which protests the U.S. government’s encroachment into Central America. After earning a B.A. in literature from Pomona College, Kristofferson deferred his military service to accept a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford’s Merton College. He became immersed in the writings of William Blake, adopting Blake’s injunction that the artist has a moral obligation to develop his talent. Kristofferson later resigned his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a decision that alienated him from his military family and from his first wife.

His commitment to the artist’s life and working class ideals also required a rejection of the highbrow world his education had prepared him for. He worked as a janitor at the Columbia Recording Studio in Nashville, which kept him in contact with industry professionals, and later jeopardized his success by emulating the self-destructive lifestyles of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr.

Hurd’s overview is a bit scattered and at times hard to follow. Nevertheless, it succeeds in contextualizing the career of an unlikely country music icon: an educated liberal whose imperfect voice, organic songwriting, sophisticated lyricism, and introverted nature emerged during Nashville’s slick and commercially oriented countrypolitan period. His anti-establishment bent—both musically and philosophically—propelled him to the ranks of future Highwaymen band-mates Jennings, Nelson, and Cash, and proved there was room for the “white man’s blues” in an age of glitzy country-pop.

Hurd, a retired professor of English, accomplishes the difficult task of using songs to summarize Kristofferson’s turbulent forty-year-plus career. As noted, she does this primarily through an analysis of lyrics, which she divides into six chapters: 1965-1970; 1971-1975; 1977-1984; 1985-1995 (Highwaymen); 1985-1991 (solo); and 1995-2014 (printed with an unfortunate typo as “2104”). Characteristically adept is her examination of Kristofferson’s award-winning song, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970). She peers beneath the surface depiction of a miserable hangover: “Aching with loneliness and alienation, the speaker renders a powerful evocation of alcoholism and the loss of traditional values (family, home, and faith)—not unlike Kristofferson’s own situation—and the burden of freedom that follows that loss” (p. 35).

It is unlikely that this book will appeal to readers who are not already Kristofferson fans. Prior interest in his life and work (including his film roles) seems a prerequisite for appreciating the depth of analysis. An optimal reading would involve some degree of hearing the songs in one’s head. On the other hand, the book might inspire casual readers to listen more intently—or perhaps for the first time—to Kristofferson’s songs. (This reviewer found himself doing just that.) What this book does best is illustrate the intimate link between songwriter and song, and the complex layers such a link can entail.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Dialects

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Charles Darwin received a package in 1858 from Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and evolutionary theorist whose reputation rivaled that of Darwin himself. Spencer’s gift was a collection of essays on wide-ranging topics, including “The Origin and Function of Music.” Darwin wrote Spencer a letter of gratitude, noting, “Your article on Music has also interested me much, for I had often thought on the subject and had come to nearly the same conclusion with you, though unable to support the notion in any detail.” The idea proposed was that music developed from the rhythm and pitch contours of emotional speech.

As the years went by, Darwin remained “unable to support” this intuitive hypothesis, and eventually flipped the scenario. Rather than putting speech before music, he proposed that biological urges gave rise to musical sounds, which then developed into speech. Specifically, he situated music’s origins in courtship displays, when our ancestors, like “animals of all kinds [were] excited not only by love, but by the strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph.” The cries that sprang forth, presumably akin to animal mating calls, were the precursors of language. Darwin’s theory had the benefit of rooting music (and subsequently language) in an adaptive process: “[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.”

The issue is far from conclusively decided. Contemporary theorists are split between Spencerians, who view music as an outgrowth of language, and Darwinians, who view language as a byproduct of music. This chicken-or-the-egg debate is likely to remain unsettled, in part because of the absence of the proverbial time machine, and in part because music and language are so inextricably intertwined.

However music and language came about, it is clear that they mirror one another. Both Spencer and Darwin based their theories on evidence of musical characteristics in expressive speech. Similarly, those who study global musics often find the syntactic and tonal patterns of regional dialects reflected in the phrasings, cadences, inflections, and intonations of regional songs. Indeed, distinct language forms help explain the variability of timbre, modal, and structural preferences from place to place. The folk melodies of Algeria and Zambia may not have much in common, but each is tied to speech patterns used in those countries.

A good illustration of the speech-song convergence is Steve Reich’s three-movement piece, Different Trains (1988). The melodic content of each movement derives from interviews recorded in the United States and Europe. Looped spoken phrases, drawn from recollections about the years leading up to, during, and immediately after the Second World War, are paralleled and developed by a string quartet—an effect that simultaneously highlights and enhances the musicality of the spoken words.

Yet, none of this tells us which came first in the history of our species. Music and language have existed side by side for eons. Musical norms have affected speech organization, just as speech organization has affected musical norms. In the end, the question of evolutionary sequence is less important than the very indispensability and interdependence of music and language.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Consequences

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified two modes of maintaining social order. The first is mechanistic solidarity, wherein cohesion develops among people who play similar roles and whose status is more or less equally valued, save for those in leadership positions. This applies to kinship-based systems (formerly called “primitive”) where the unit of organization is the extended family or clan, and the distinction between the individual and society is minimal. The second is organic solidarity, in which order is achieved through a complex division of labor and role differentiation. This is typical of capitalist societies, which rely on the integration of specialized tasks.

Both systems have their merits and demerits. In the musical realm, the division of labor allows a select group, known as “musicians,” to focus on the craft and make significant cultural contributions. However, such specialization tends to have the opposite effect on the rest of the populace, which is tacitly discouraged from making music, even as an amateur pursuit. This contrasts with the norm in indigenous groups, where an egalitarian ethos encourages music from everyone. Although lacking in notation and recording, and all the artistic expansion they afford, their music can be remarkably intricate and varied.

Ethnomusicologist John Blacking was especially critical of the Western bifurcation of “musician” and “non-musician.” From his experience with the Venda people of South Africa, Blacking concluded that music is a species-specific trait, like language, and thus a natural mode of expression available to all. A passage from his book How Musical is Man? sums up this view: “[If] all members of an African society are able to perform and listen intelligently to their own indigenous music, and if this unwritten music, when analyzed in its social and cultural context, can be shown to have a similar range of effects on people and to be based on intellectual and musical processes that are found in the so-called ‘art’ music of Europe, we must ask why apparently general musical abilities should be restricted to a chosen few in societies supposed to be culturally more advanced.”

Blacking identified division of labor rather than an absence of aptitude as the dampening force on music compulsion. In capitalist societies, where skills become professions, commercial music is a major industry. Yet music sales still depend on our fundamental musicality. The performers may be specialists, but they are no more proficient in discerning musical sounds than the listeners who support them. Thus, the musical consequence of societal evolution is not biological but sociological. The shift from indigenous to industrial societies causes a general redirection of emphasis from collective music-making to individual listening. We remain musical, but our active expression is significantly stifled.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

More than Words

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Communication is usually defined as the exchange of information or ideas. The expansiveness and nuance of modern languages is such that almost anything can be put into words. Vocabulary helps us make sense of the world and process our experiences in it. Contrastingly, nonverbal communication is very limited in range. While it takes many forms—from gestures and facial expressions to posture and speech patterns—it mainly operates on the level of feelings. Nonverbal cues typically do little more than reinforce or contradict what is being said (like saying “thank you” with a smile or “everything is fine” with a frown). Nevertheless, psychologists have long known that the wording of a message is far less important than how the words are expressed.

In 1968, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian published an influential paper, “Communication Without Words,” which examined the relative effect of verbal and nonverbal communication. He found that the impact of speech is fifty-five percent facial, thirty-eight percent tone of voice, and only seven percent verbal. This comes pretty close to arguing that it doesn’t matter what we say, but how we say it. Of course, the formula applies less to purely factual statements, like giving directions or one’s stating name and address; but in ordinary conversation, nonverbal communication carries disproportionate weight.

While the 7%-38%-55% Rule might seem exaggerated, proof is readily found in our day-to-day lives. Just think of how sarcasm can flip the meaning of a phrase. Positive words are reversed with an eye roll or resentful tone. It is an entirely extra-linguistic trick, making it notoriously difficult to put into writing. Without vocal or facial indicators, “nice going” just means “nice going.”

The power of nonverbal communication is also felt in song. The musical content of a song is often thought of as additive—that is, as a vehicle for clarifying and transmitting lyrics. However, in many cases, the opposite is true: lyrics can simply be an excuse for making music. If spoken messages are thirty-eight percent voice tone, then song—a medium that accentuates the voice—is swayed even more by sound. Add to this the visible aspect of a live performance, and the importance of words dwindles further still.

There are many songs in which words have an exceedingly small impact. We all like songs with lyrics that, if merely spoken or read, would not interest us in the least. These come in six basic types, though there may be more: Songs with trite or sophomoric lyrics; Songs that make little sense; Songs with themes we do not condone; Songs with ideas we do not agree with; Songs in a foreign language; Songs about things with which we have no experience. In each case, words probably account for less than seven percent of our attraction.

To be sure, plenty of songs include thoughtful poetry. But they are not the majority. If, for instance, we were to comb the extensive Beatles catalogue, we would find that most of their lyrics are simplistic, some are nonsensical, and a small number are truly exquisite. These lopsided figures do not impact the band’s popularity, just as the words we say do not make or break how others feel about us. Communication is much more than words.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Timbre Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All melodies are the same. This provocative overstatement should not be dismissed out of hand. Although there are diversifying options, such as meter, mode, note density, and rhythmic values, the fundamental shape of melody is remarkably consistent. When the sonic fat is trimmed away, what remains is a typical melodic line. This mainly owes to the powerful force of convention, which (un)consciously shapes musical patterns in more or less uniform ways. Culturally conditioned ears tolerate only a limited spectrum of choices; the more divergences, the less the general appeal. At the risk of being tautological, melodies are recognizable because they sound like melodies.

Gary Ewer, a songwriter and creator of Easy Music Theory, identifies what he calls “5 Characteristics of Any Great Melody.” His summation is not as boastful as it might appear, though these key ingredients are found in most Western melodies, great and not-so-great. The five characteristics are: restricted range (an octave-and-a-half); repeating elements (intervals, rhythms, motifs); stepwise motion (moving by scale steps with occasional leaps); movement in relationship with the bass line (parallel, similar, oblique or contrary); and a climactic point leading to a cadence. Other building blocks not on Ewer’s list include four-bar phrases and predictable chord progressions (both simple and complex).

These ingredients are present in all idioms of Western music, from Baroque to reggae to bubblegum pop. Of course, some melodies are more adventurous than others, and some manage to buck a few norms while staying within the requisite parameters. Yet, without blurring the countless tunes that have been offered to the atmosphere, the fact is that differences between melodies lie in nuances rather than in fundamental structures.

Given this basic homogeneity, why do certain melodies rise to the top? The answer rests partly in extra-musical factors, such as lyrical content, the look of the performer(s), promotional efforts, and inclusion on a soundtrack. But musical qualities also contribute to a song’s popularity (or unpopularity). These aspects are not necessarily located in the pitches, dynamics or durations, but in the less tangible realm of timbre: distinctive and recognizable sounds.

This is particularly true of recorded songs, which reach audiences via specific timbre mixtures of vocals, instruments, and production signatures. Attraction to a song is really attraction to this global sound—a reality accounting for the frequent failure of covers and remixes. A Katy Perry song in someone else’s mouth does not have the same effect, just as Tom Petty minus the Heartbreakers lacks a certain something.

A historical case in point is The Paul Simon Song Book (1965), a solo album Simon recorded after Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, Simon & Garfunkel’s first studio recording, received a discouragingly cool reception. The record includes several songs that would become hits for the duo, such as “I Am A Rock,” “Leaves That Are Green,” and “The Sound of Silence.” But the timbre is off. Without Garfunkel’s harmonies and other additive sounds, the impression is one of raw incompletion.

Popular melodies sometimes find their way into song anthologies and fake books: collections of lead sheets with melodies, chord markings, and lyrics. These are “standards,” or tunes of established popularity from a period and/or style. The minimalistic presentation suggests that melody, apart from audible textures, is the source of a song’s popularity. However, the very reduction to soundless notation exposes the crucial role of timbre in creating hits. Without that tapestry of sounds, a melody is just a melody like any other.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.